May 21, 2024

Trio shares conservation experiences

Matt Boucher (from left), Jay Whalen and Craig Swartz share their conservation experiences during a “Toolshed Talk,” sponsored by the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District.

DWIGHT, Ill. — Three farmers with decades of experience utilizing soil conservation practices on their farms detailed their efforts in a “Toolshed Talk” on March 18.

The Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District event featured Matt Boucher, Dwight; Craig Swartz, Emington; and Jay Whalen, Streator.

Boucher and his family raise corn, soybeans, wheat and cover crops, as well as pork and chickens for local sales. He started using cover crops about 10 years ago.

Swartz and his father grow corn and soybeans. Strip-till has been a part of their operation for about 30 years. They also incorporate cover crops.

Whalen and his family produce no-till corn and soybeans and have been using cover crops for well over a decade. They now have cover crops on all of their acres.

Here are some the topics they covered:

On Getting Started

Boucher: If you’re going to get into cover crops, figure out what your goals are. Sit down with somebody like us, figure out what’s going to work best for you and fits into your operation.

Don’t flip your operation upside down where you’re going to go from a late corn that you’re normally planting to something super early and start losing yield.

Figure out what’s going to work for you and what works on your acres. One farm is going to be different than another one. Start small with cover crops.

Swartz: The same thing with anything, if you’re switching from chiseling to reduced tillage or strip-till corn, don’t bet the farm on it.

Take baby steps. I’ve had so many conversations with guys that said they wanted to do the whole thing. Just because of the dollars and cents, don’t do that. You’re going to get a bad taste in your mouth and never do it again.

Find somebody you can talk to. I know all three of us have been through some good and we’ve been through some bad. It’s no different than anything else. Baby steps are so critical.

Boucher: You’re going to win some. You’re going to lose some. Don’t expect that first year of cover crops to be a home run. There’s a little bit of learning curve. It took us a while to get there.

Whalen: I tell guys to take their worst piece of ground and put cover crops on it. Starting with your worst piece of ground is really the best. That helped my dad when he saw that worst piece of ground turn into a best piece of ground and beat our really good ground.

Swartz: Put the cover crops on areas that you have the most troubled soil — slopes, gullies — just give it a shot. Seed a 40-foot section. It’s not going to take that much time to do it in the fall. It’s not going to impact the whole field and it’s manageable.

I have found with some of our ground, if you could just get some of those gullies seeded down, it will have a huge return. It slowed the dirt down, gullies will fill in and just disappear. It just takes a couple days in the fall to seed them.

On Tillage

Swartz: What I love about strip-tilling corn is the value of your time is so huge. You’re probably not going to gain yield in strip-till corn, you might, but the thing we see on our operation that’s the biggest driver of strip-till corn is the amount of time that we save.

We plant corn and soybeans at about the same time. So, instead of having someone in the field cultivator and someone chasing down the seed tender and all the other things that makes stuff happen, I can just jump in the tractor and plant corn. My dad plants the beans.

I think it’s been pretty well proven that not only is your time more efficient, but we’re gaining some extra yield on soybeans by planting earlier. It’s hard to change that mindset when we’ve been doing it for so long, but once you start understanding that time factor, that’s so huge.

Boucher: When we went to strip-till and no-till, we went from chiseling the field in the fall, so you had a pass and labor there, and working the ground at least once, if not twice in the spring, usually twice. Then we plant.

So, there’s three passes that we’ve narrowed down to one with a strip-till bar. We’re going to apply a herbicide anyway.

For us on our farm, I can take care of all the spring stuff myself. So, instead of having two guys working all the time, it’s basically just myself.

Whalen: One of the things I’ve been trying to calculate out is equipment cost — chisel plow, field cultivator, all of that, and the high-horsepower tractor you need to pull that.

The other thing I really enjoy was when I finally got my dad to step away from that stuff was when the fuel guy called and questioned if we were getting fuel from somewhere else because we weren’t getting as much from them as in the past.

That is the best call I ever got was when the fuel guy called questioning that we don’t use near the amount of fuel.

When you calculate that fuel and that equipment, that’s when the return on investment really stands out.

Boucher: Our fuel bill literally got cut in half.

On Seeding

Boucher: We updated our air seeder to a newer model and we’re getting into variable rate. We already variable rate corn and soybeans. We have a field with very good black dirt along the road and it goes down into timber clay along the creek.

On that good black dirt I still want to put a good rate of rye up there when we’re going to have soybeans the following year, but when we get down into the timber clay, I want to be able to bump up the seeding rate based off of zones and the soil types. I think that’s going to be the next step, whether you’re broadcasting, using an air seeder, or airplane.

It’s a cost savings. If you want to put on, for example, 100 pounds on that clay to really loosen it up and get the organic material going, it doesn’t mean you have to put 100 pounds on your good black dirt.

Whalen: For cereal rye, I would rather get a nice even stand and plant after corn harvest than trying to put it in a standing crop. At least that works the best for me. On the soybean side ahead of corn, a lot if is done with either an airplane or helicopter because I want to get that out before harvest.

That window of opportunity to get growth in the fall just isn’t there after soybean harvest. Between the soybean varieties, and spraying with fungicides to get the highest yield, it seems like the soybean harvest gets later every year.

On my soybean acres going ahead of corn, I split with half just oats and radishes, and the other half is annual rye and radish which I have to terminate in the spring.

I don’t use one thing. I like to use multiple different things. I try to do about 250 to 300 acres in my operation of different things just to keep looking at what works best.

It makes it easier to manage because instead of having 500, 600, 700 acres of rye to burn down, I’ve got 250 acres. I can do that in a day. Then I have 300 or 400 acres of oats and radishes, and I can just go plant in.

Boucher: You also have to have diversity. Rye is great. It’s a great tool, it’s simple, it’s relatively cheap and it does it’s job. But if we can integrate other things in there like radishes, rapeseed and different things like that, now you start to get that diversity going.

We’ve mixed up 15, 16 different mixes for guys and sometimes it works and sometimes it’s a learning experience. It’s the same thing with rye, same thing with annual rye or radishes or anything. Corn and soybeans are still a learning experience all the way around, depending on the year.

Diversity helps out quite a bit, but cost goes up with that, too. You have to do what’s right for you. The biggest thing is what your neighbor did two miles down the road may or may not work for you, and you have to take that into consideration.

Swartz: We don’t seed with airplanes. We’ve tried and it hasn’t worked out for us. I think it’s probably mainly due to some of our soil types. Even if we catch a rain, it doesn’t seem like we ever get that good growth.

We used a spinner spreader last year. We spread it with some potash as a carrier and then we did some humic acid and it worked well. We worked it in with our Landoll vertical till disc. I feel like that’s a pretty easy button for me.

The Landoll pass in the fall for us is something I’ll keep doing because we always make ruts. It’s levels out the ground a little bit. So, if I can implement cover crops into what I’m already doing, it makes life easier because there’s always ruts, there’s always tracks, it’s always something, and I feel like that’s an easy way for us to incorporate the cover crop seed.

It makes things go easier in the fall because I don’t have to stop everything that I’m doing, hook up the drill and go plant cover crops. If I can incorporate what we’re already doing across most the rest of it and add cover crops, it makes life a whole lot easier.

Whalen: That’s why I went to the broadcast seeder. I felt the same way. I wanted to be able to do 80 or 100 acres in the morning. It was something that I wanted to get across quick because of that mentality of being more focused on getting done with the harvest than getting that out.

If it’s a wet morning and we’re in soybeans, I can plant 100 acres of cover crops before we go do soybeans, heck yes. It’s simple and easy. You have to have the manpower to use a drill, air seeder or whatever. I don’t have the manpower to have somebody plant cover crops while we’re harvesting.

On Planting Date

Boucher: One thing we did find on soybeans and cover crops, regardless how tall the cover crop is, we try to plant soybeans as early as we can. It makes a big difference.

Now, building on that, we’ve set up trials planted early in a strip and then we broke up our herbicide passes to terminate the cover crop.

We’ve done this multiple years. Plant early as soon as conditions are right, and year in, year out the best results we had is to kill the cover crops off when the soybeans are at the first trifoliate.

Crop insurance doesn’t really like to hear that, but when you look at numbers at the end of the year, that’s where we’ve had the best results every single time.

Have the conversation with your crop insurance person and see what the coverage is going to say about that, but that’s where we got the best results every time.

It’s going to push you out of your comfort zone doing that, but you have a nice soybean growing up in there and that rye by that time is 4 feet tall and you spray it, the rye starts to fall down, and weeks later you see those rows start to emerge. It’s going to make you nervous, but when you combine, the results are there.

On Soil Health

Whalen: I switched to the Haney test for my soil testing because I was seeing such a difference when all of my acres went into cover crops. The standard testing is so different than the Haney test, especially when you start getting into cover crops.

The nice thing was back in 2013, I started to experiment with the Haney test when it was fairly new. I’m so glad I did that in 2013 because now I can look at what I’m seeing now with my soil testing and see a huge difference.

The standard soil test is a lot of inorganic testing while the Haney test looks at the organic testing. It’s made a huge difference, at least for me. The standard test is not going to have what I want to see or what I’m looking at now on the organic matter side.

My numbers are through the roof. All of my phosphorus, potassium and sulfur are up and it shows I need zero amount of anything to apply.

It showed that I didn’t even need maintenance. I put on a very minimal amount of fertilizer. I basically put about 75 pounds of P and K on, and I’ve got my nitrogen cut back.

The Haney test gives a soil health score. In 2013 when we were doing the EQIP program, the soil health score anywhere from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7 range on the soil health score. In 2017, it was in that 8, 9 range. I soil tested again in 2019 and it was in the 12 to 14 range.

Every farm I tested this year, that soil health score was over 20. It has just shown that everything I’ve been doing is making that better.

I did some meetings on soil testing and the Haney test in 2015-2016. Conventional tilled farms usually had a soil health score of 3 to 4, and now to have mine up over 20 is really exciting and finally getting that proof. I’m actually able to put a number on what cover crops are doing.

That’s what a lot of guys struggle with. They don’t see the benefits of cover crop. It’s taken a lot of years, but I can physically see the benefits now. I can now see it in that testing. It takes time, but it can be achieved.

The organic matter has gone up in every test. Everything has gone up. I have some organic matter now that’s in the 6, 7 and 8 range.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor